Playwright takes darkness of AIDS with light touch


Paul Rudnick, proud owner of two new Outer Critics Circle awards for his AIDS-inspired off-Broadway hit "Jeffrey," describes the kind of character that moved him to mock the dread plague:

"Oh, you brought the wrong diet soda," he whines, mimicking a hospital martyr milking a bedside vigil to the max. "Not that robe -- that's the ugly robe . . . I've read these magazines."

With "Jeffrey," Mr. Rudnick has made a fatal disease hilarious; he has accentuated the positive in HIV-positive; he has satirized the saturnalians who cruise the clubs, the gyms and even the memorial services of the dead.

The play's central figure is a smooth-cheeked actor-waiter who swears off sex. He's terrified of catching the virus, and refuses to risk loving someone he may lose prematurely.

Moments after taking his vow, Jeffrey meets someone special. The object of his desire is HIV-positive. From that point, an almost conventional boy-meets-boy, will boy-lose-boy? romantic comedy proceeds, buoyed by repartee that walks on the Wilde side.

"I hope it doesn't trivialize AIDS," said Mr. Rudnick, 35, who knows the routine of keeping watch, fetching the diet soda and the robes and the magazines.

Not that he has to wallow in it, thank you. "One thing I learned is that just sitting around being serious benefits no one. I've become shockingly familiar with hospitals. One benefit of that is I'm no longer afraid of them. I used to be."

His watershed moment may have come in a waiting room where he and several friends began swapping stories about the dying man they were attending. Illness had not ennobled the patient: He was demanding, prissy, boorish.

"We were all saying, 'I just hate him!' And we all laughed," Mr. Rudnick said.

"Jeffrey" is Mr. Rudnick's most serious subject matter to date. It's also his funniest, and the one he says "sounds most like me."

His two novels, "Social Disease" and "I'll Take It," were light takes on the self-absorbed New York club scene and on shopping.

Mr. Rudnick wrote the screenplay for "Sister Act," then negotiated a pseudonym ("Joseph Howard") when it was abridged too much by other writers.

He did an uncredited turn as script doctor on "The Addams Family" movie, and -- much to his relief -- is the sole writer for the sequel, "Addams Family Values," scheduled to open around Thanksgiving.

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